Commons sense

Perhaps it’s as simple as this: Some people dislike the idea of a commons—a publicly owned space that grants every citizen a seat at the table.

Many in Asheville have been scratching their heads over the latest government selloff of parkland to wealthy developers. Maybe it really is that simple. Perhaps certain people within Buncombe County government just don’t like the concept that a park created and maintained with public tax dollars should be a shining jewel that everyone can share equally, regardless of their economic status.

For some people, the only true measure of the value of an asset is how much money an individual can make for himself by exploiting it. How best to demonstrate that concept to a populace confused by the notion of a commons? Sell off a prime slice of parkland as a site for luxury condominiums that will forever loom over this commons, jostling with the neighboring government buildings and reminding all who venture into the heart of Asheville that top dollar buys front-row seats.

The 2003 fight over the Grove Park Inn’s attempt to build a similar structure in the park was bruising, divisive and should have signaled to all responsible parties that further incursions into our parkland would not be tolerated. It was well known that then City Manager Jim Westbrook had hanging on the wall of his office, which looked out on the park, an illustration that showed a large building on the future GPI site—long before the inn actually proposed putting one there. There was clearly a bias in favor of privatizing that particular piece of our public space.

A brief history lesson: In August of 2001, Buncombe County signed an agreement that granted the Pack Square Conservancy the authority to oversee the redesign and construction of the new park. It specifically granted the nonprofit the right of approval of any new development within the park’s borders. Those boundaries were laid out in the agreement, and they clearly include the property that Buncombe County quietly sold last November—apparently without a word to the Conservancy—to a developer who was already notorious in Asheville for building luxury condos while showing little sensitivity to the concerns of his neighbors.

How is this legal? (Stay tuned for tortured arguments from the attorneys.) Is the county preparing to go to the mat to defend this sale of parkland? Consider that when the story first broke, the Conservancy asked the county to approve a resolution reaffirming the nonprofit’s authority over (future) development within the park boundaries. Reasonable, yes? “We recognize that you snuck one by us, but please don’t do it again, OK?”

The county initially agreed to vote on this, but canceled without explanation mere minutes before the hearing. They won’t even promise not to do this again, much less acknowledge that they shouldn’t have done it the first time. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the developer, Stewart Coleman, has said that he would like even more parkland for his condominiums, and a vote on such a resolution would make further transfers problematic. Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey has said he thought any controversy about the sale was “much ado about nothing.” Both Ramsey and the county staff who facilitated this sale knew very well that a significant portion of the community would be outraged by it.

This sale of prime and—how should one put it—extremely sensitive public land went forward with the barest of fig leafs: a two-line mention in the legal-notices section of the newspaper. Everything about this deal smells.

During the League of Women Voters forum on the Grove Park Inn proposal in 2003, I represented People Advocating Real Conservancy on the panel. Responding to accusations that we were antidevelopment, I told GPI President Craig Madison that if he had proposed his building for a site two blocks in any direction from the park, it wouldn’t have generated the opposition it did. Now witness the Ellington, the enormous luxury development proposed by the GPI and others for a site two blocks from the park. It appears to be sailing through the approval process. This is not about being antidevelopment. It’s about protecting our common space, our gathering place, the park that should always welcome everyone and that everyone knows is being held in trust by responsible people.

The county can still rectify this—first by denying Mr. Coleman’s request for more parkland and then by buying back the land mistakenly sold to him. City Council can vote to reject the project altogether, and they should. Asheville deserves a park that belongs to everyone—not just a privileged few.

[Asheville resident Barry Summers co-hosts Making Progress: News for a Change on WPVM radio on Mondays at 6 p.m. He was a founding member of People Advocating Real Conservancy.]

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